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Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards II

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In yesterday's post about Microsoft's lobbying of the Cabinet Office against truly open standards based on RF licensing, I spent some time examining the first part of a letter sent by the company on 20 May last year. The second part concentrates on the issue of open standards for document exchange. This touches on one of the most brutal episodes in recent computing history - the submission of Microsoft's OOXML file format to ISO for approval.

That story is told in unmatched depth and authority by Andy Updegrove on his Standards Blog, and for those who want the gory details, I strongly recommend looking through some of the literally hundreds of posts Updegrove has written on this extremely complex subject.

I won't go into the details of that story here. Instead, I want to concentrate on just one aspect, as revealed in this post by Updegrove:

just as a major international crisis can grow from a minor event in an out of the way corner of the world, so did the ODF-OOXML standards war arise from a simple procurement decision in a small US state (Massachusetts) in the late summer of 2005.

As a result of that decision, ODF suddenly became a credible weapon that could be targeted at the soft underbelly of Office, one of the two great profit engines of Microsoft’s ongoing success. IBM, Sun, and, less publicly, companies like Oracle and Google recognized an opportunity to undermine Microsoft’s hegemony on the desktop, and acted to support ODF. Microsoft, predictably, pulled out all the stops to defend its franchise.

One of the steps that Microsoft adopted was to accelerate the announcement of commitments it was already finding it needed to make to its government customers by way of opening up its products. As part of that strategy, it revealed in late 2005 that it would submit its OOXML formats to Ecma

In other words, as a result of a decision by single city in the US to adopt open standards for documents (also mentioned in Microsoft's letter of May 20), Microsoft set in train an immense sequence of events that culminated in the accelerated adoption of OOXML as an ISO standard.

That, in a nutshell, is the power of truly open standards, especially when implemented by open source, because everything is driven by a desire for openness and interoperability. This sets a very high bar that other companies must then match if they wish to remain competitive, as Microsoft's hurried actions demonstrate.

A few months later, on 31 August, Microsoft sent an email to the Cabinet Office that included a policy paper "compiled by Microsoft Corp" as it says in the footer, on the same subject, entitled "The Importance of Neutral of Multiple-Standards Policy in Document Format Standards" [.pdf]. Its aim is explained as follows:

This paper is intended to guide or supplement government policies and evaluations around document format standards. This compilation of best practices, references, studies, and examples can be used by policymakers and those who evaluate policies around country or state positions and mandates to ensure that they minimize disruptions and maximize value.

Under a section is called "The Open XML Standard", there is a subsection that is headed "Attributes of an Open Standard", where we read:

Open XML is a ratified standard that complies with the inherent attributes of “open format” standard which is periodically reviewed by governments. Several of these attributes, including the standard’s openness and implement-ability, will be examined.

So what are the "Attributes of an Open Standard" according to Microsoft in this paper that it put together in November 2010 - shortly before the UK government issued its guidance on RF open standards? Here's Microsoft's list (headings only):

Documentation:

Community-Maintained:

Freely-Implementable:

So according to Microsoft's own definition, one key attribute of an open standard is that it must be "Freely-Implementable:". Let's look at how Microsoft defines that term in its analysis:

Any required Microsoft patent rights are available on a royalty-free, perpetual basis to all implementers.

Given that Microsoft itself defines an open standard as having patent rights "available on a royalty-free, perpetual basis to all implementers", I have to ask the same question I posed in my previous column: why has Microsoft changed its position on open standards? Why should the UK government be forced to accept anything less than full RF open standards when Microsoft agrees that RF licensing is a key attribute in its policy paper that is "intended to guide or supplement government policies"?

One thing the paper does explain is why Microsoft has adopted this approach:

Through Microsoft’s Interoperability Principles, Microsoft has made legal commitments to Ecma International, to ISO/IEC, and to all interested users and vendors that anyone can use and implement Open XML without Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) burdens. Microsoft believes that it is in everyone’s interest for this open file format to be available freely and easily for document exchange and preservation.

And the same is true for any interoperability open standard: "it is in everyone’s interest" that they be made "available freely and easily" so as to allow information to be exchanged between anyone, anywhere - exactly as the UK government seeks to ensure with its open standards policy. Microsoft's own words and actions confirm it: truly open standards that promote interoperability as widely as possible must use RF licensing of claimed patents.

How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards I

How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards ii

How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards III

How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards IV

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